Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge


hacksaw-ridge

Damn you, Mel Gibson! You’re making it very hard for me to continue hating you. For sure, I’ll never forget your anti-Semitic rants or your unwavering support for your father after his own outspoken statements denying the Holocaust. Your film, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, was way over the top, both in its portrayal of Jews and what you see as their role in sending Jesus to the cross too. It was unfortunate that the Anti-Defamation League made such a stink about the film. Had they just kept quiet, only devout Christians would have gone to see it and you wouldn’t have made a tenth as much money on it as you did. You could say that the very people you hate were the ones who were ultimately responsible for putting so much money in your pocket.

But that’s history and it seems that you’re now on a path of redemption, keeping your racist opinions to yourself and focusing on your craft. Your latest film, HACKSAW RIDGE, is mighty good and you deserve the praise you’re receiving for it. Is it worthy of a Best Picture Oscar® though, or are you deserving of a Best Director Oscar®? Hollywood does love a comeback, which is what you have achieved with this film but Hollywood is also controlled by Jews (sez you) and, while we like to forgive, we don’t like to forget. It would seem that Jewish Hollywood has given you that most Christian of attributes – forgiveness, but we’ll have to wait until the end of February to find out how forgetful the Academy voters are.

Now about your film, it is one of the best films I’ve seen so far this year but it’s not without its weaknesses. I understand that it tells the true story (as opposed to being “based on a true story”, which implies some element of fiction) of Desmond Doss, an American pacifist combat medic in WWII, who became the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor, for service above and beyond the call of duty. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield, THE SOCIAL NETWORK) was a Seventh-day Adventist. When America entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, young men and women all over the country enlisted to fight. Doss also wanted to serve his country but he steadfastly refused to carry or use a firearm or weapons of any kind. This stance raised the ire of both his sergeant (played by Vince Vaughn, WEDDING CRASHERS) and captain (Sam Worthington, AVATAR), who tried to get him drummed out of the army on a Section 8 discharge. When that didn’t work, they had Doss arrested and tried for insubordination. Doss’ father (played by Hugo Weaving, THE DRESSMAKER) came to the rescue though. A veteran of WWI, the elder Doss reached out to his former commanding officer who was by that point a general. Pacifism, it turns out, is protected under the US constitution. Although Doss was allowed to return to his unit, he still faced a huge hurdle from his colleagues who didn’t like him or trust him.

All that changed when the unit was shipped off to Japan to participate in the Battle of Okinawa. There, they had to scale the cliff face of the Maeda Escarpment, nicknamed “Hacksaw Ridge”, and engage the enemy who was well ensconced on the top. It was a brutal campaign that lasted for weeks (or days, as depicted in the film) with heavy casualties on both sides. During a lull in the fighting, Doss scurried around collecting his wounded comrades and rappelling them down the cliff face to shocked medics below. Working throughout the night, he single-handedly rescued over 75 soldiers, many of whom were so badly injured they most certainly would have died from their wounds if not for Doss’ heroism.

It’s an amazing story that one wonders why it wasn’t told ages ago. It turns out that various efforts had been made over the years to bring Doss’ story to the big screen but for a number of reasons it never happened. For starters, the screenplay sat in “Development Hell” for over a decade. Gibson himself turned down the opportunity to direct the film twice before finally agreeing to do it. Then there was a problem with funding. In the end, production took place in Australia with a largely local cast (not to mention the director himself) in order to qualify for government tax credits there.

Unfortunately, all these factors played into some of the film’s shortcomings. The story is very old fashioned and seems to be somewhat anachronous for today’s audiences. World War II ended 71 years ago and the reasons for going to war have changed since then. Could a Doss exist in today’s world of Iraq, Afghanistan, the Taliban and ISIS? All the Australian actors putting on their best American accents, not to mention Virginian accents for some of them, is a bit strange too. And the scenes of Fort Jackson in South Carolina are too Disney-fied to seem real. On the plus side, Garfield arguably does his best work ever bringing a Forrest Gump-like charm to Doss. If it weren’t for the footage at the end of the film of the real Doss (taken before his died in 2006), we would think Garfield’s portrayal was too hokey to be believed but we can see that the actor got the character right.

As for Gibson, he brings his usual heavy-handed mix of gratuitous violence, blood and Christian imagery to the film. There is no shortage of scenes of mangled bodies displayed in all their glory while rats run around feasting on the entrails. War is hell and nothing is held back to remind us of that. There is also plenty in the film that will give ministers and preachers heaps of sermon fodder for months to come. Characters seek forgiveness, find redemption and turn to G-d throughout the story, but the most blatant image comes at the end of the film when Doss himself is hoisted down the cliff face after being on the receiving end of a Japanese bullet. Injured and bloody, the camera shoots Garfield from below as if Doss is ascending to heaven as his earthly work is complete. The symbolism doesn’t get more obvious than that. But, to his credit, Gibson knows how to tell a story and keep it interesting throughout.

All in all, HACKSAW RIDGE is thrillingly good entertainment though. If you can handle the religious overtones not to mention the gore, it’s well worth your time and money. Damn you, Mel Gibson! It looks like you’re back.

I’ll be reviewing this film tomorrow morning, December 1st, on RTHK Radio 4 at about 8:35 am Hong Kong time. Hope you can listen in live!

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